Shrewsbury, Massachusetts – It was another jam packed agenda at last nights School Committee meeting so I thought I’d just provide you all with a quick summary, for those who didn’t have a chance to tune in.   It’s not easy for our ratings to be up against Modern Family on Wed. nights, but the good news is that the meetings are rebroadcast multiple times during the week on Shrewsbury Access Cable, if you’d like to watch.

In addition to a wonderful presentation from first, second, third and fourth grades at Shrewsbury's Floral St School, here’s a quick bullet point of the items that were discussed.

1. Shrewsbury School Committee member Erin Canzano, the boards liaison to the Sherwood Building Committee reported that work is to begin shortly on the Sherwood Middle School building, with road work beginning in late March, and a formal ground breaking in May.

2. We heard reports from Parker Road Preschool and Beal Early Childhood center, both of whom are doing just fantastic work for Shrewsbury families.  One interesting data point, presented by Principal Alice Brennan, was that studies looking at incoming kindergarten students who have, vs. have not, mastered the alphabet by the time they start school, a vast difference is seen cascading into 4th grade writing ability later on in life.  The question was raised as to how we can work to educate parents in the Spring when the lotteries and registrations are done, as to tips and ideas for what books and tools they can read with their children over the summer, before they arrive to begin the fall term, so the students arrive as prepared as possible.   Ms. Brennan also stressed that students do learn at their own pace, and that it’s important not to stress them out.

3. On the fiscal 2012 budget news, Shrewsbury superintendent Joe Sawyer presented a proposed budget that reduced the request from the initial figures,  through some reorganized financial management, without cutting into services that we need to be able to provide. Guidance from the town manager and our esteemed colleagues on the Shrewsbury Board of Selectmen and Shrewsbury Finance Committee, is that funding is going to be very hard this year, due to the economic conditions across the state.  We currently have a requested increase of about 1.4 million dollars over FY 11 figures, vs. an initial  recommendation from the town manager of a reduction of about 750k .

The numbers are still very much in flux, in terms of what capital the town will ultimately have to work with, and where those funds will go. Historically, the town manager has been extremely supportive of the needs of the school department, and all indications are that he will continue to do all he can, within the scope of the funds that the town has available.

I made note of the fact that even if we are given the full 1.4M increase, it is by no means a “home run” for the schools.  In fact, we are still woefully underfunded, and this is barely enough to make us whole, when compared to the underfunded year we are now in the middle of. We still have class sizes that are, in many cases, well beyond not only our internal guidelines, but far above state recommendations – especially in science lab classrooms.

Chairperson Sandy Fryc asked Dr. Sawyer to prepare for the next meeting a summary list of what recommendations they might have for even deeper cuts in programs or personnel if the budget doesn’t swing in our favor.   I made note, however, of the fact that what we really need, but what is not there for us, is several million dollars just in technology alone, as we are currently replacing computers on average, once ever 15 years, and our tech director indicates that over 2/3rds of the computers currently in the district are incapable of running a current operating system.

4. Dr. Heather Thompson, a Latin teacher at Shrewsbury High School presented a request tot he committee for as school trip to Greece and Italy with Latin students.  The trip was approved, but not without some controversy that will potentially have some lasting ramifications down the road. This trip was estimated at a cost to each student of about $3500, which is one of the highest that has been presented. With the recommended spending money and optional insurance packages, this might easily wind up costing a family over $5k.  Committee member, Dr. Dale Magee, lauded the intellectual value of these excursions, but raised objection as he has in the past, based on the question of whether or not public schools should be potentially creating these “elite” groups of students, based on who has the financial ability to participate, and whether this gets away from our core mission of providing equal education for all.   I spoke on this as well, questioning whether we’re inadvertently fostering a school of have’s and have nots, based on ability to pay.   I have no issue with school trips, and have voted to approve all of the ones which have previously been prevented.  Most, however, are far more affordable in nature, or are tied to some fundamental item, such as the band competitions in New York, Speech Tournament in Toronto and DC, or even the Spanish teachers trip with her students to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  I do, however, has some issues with these costs spiraling the way they have, and wonder whether a  Shrewsbury student who doesn’t have the financial ability to go, is at a strategic disadvantage, and what pressures that may place on their families.

Dr. Sawyer indicated that the board had the ability to decide whether or not to set policy around these trips, and I requested that the policy subcommittee look into the matter, evaluate whether a policy is needed, for example, capping the cost of trips, and report back to the full committee – which they were happy to do.  More to follow on that one, but I’d love to hear the thoughts of those in the community on the matter.

5.The committee voted to accept the new policy on sponsorship and advertising in the schools, which codifies some of the regulation surrounding the dissemination of materials in the schools. That will be posted on line shortly for all to review.

Our next meeting is this coming Wednesday, at which we will be holding two important public hearings.  One will be a chance to come in and speak on the budget, and the other is an opportunity to weigh in on whether or not Shrewsbury should allow school choice again this year. Hopefully many of you out in the community will come out to attend.

Until then, keep the emails coming with any suggestions you have or things you want brought up.  Remember we all work for you, and are always thrilled to hear from you.